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Home > Passions of Artisans #030 BITOWA

#030 BITOWA2014/12/25

Bring hope and energy to production sites! A new brand of Aizu lacquer ware proposed by a team of young people

Promote manufacturing where young people can try new things with hopes and dreams

The Aizu region in Fukushima Prefecture is surrounded by Mt. Bandai, which offers spectacular views from season to season, including lush new greenery and autumn colors. Aizu lacquer ware is a traditional craft native to this area with its abundant nature, and which boasts over 400 years of history. Over the years, it has built a nationwide reputation with products such as bowls, tiered boxes, saucers and other daily items that are part of people’s lives.

Industry flourished in this region since a division of labor has been established throughout the area, from creating a wood base and coating it, to decorating by adding gold or silver motifs on the coated surface, called makie. This enabled us to respond to large-volume orders at even more affordable prices, despite our operations being entirely hand crafted. This was why Aizu was able to long remain Japan’s prime manufacturing area, both in terms of output and shipment volumes. Recently, however, the momentum has begun to stagnate, and output volume dropped to one-fourths that of the peak period.

This situation caused a strong sense of crisis among the Aizu Lacquer Ware Cooperative Union’s young members. BITOWA is a new brand of Aizu lacquer ware whose modern designs are attracting global attention. BITOWA is not a single company, but rather a joint project, unprecedented in Japan, where the owners of multiple corporations team up to promote integrated manufacturing and sales operations.

“I want customers to use lacquer ware not only on special occasions, but also on a daily basis,” says Norihiro Endo.

“I first had the desire to train young people who will succeed and carry on the art of Aizu lacquer ware. Aizu lacquer ware comprises numerous sophisticated techniques, such as hana-nuri, a method of over-coating with lacquer that was made glossy with the addition of special oil, and keshikin-makie that uses finest pure gold powder. Unless there was a way to put outstanding technologies to use, however, fewer young people would choose to become craftsmen, and the overall production site would dwindle away. There was a need to show a new vision of Aizu lacquer ware that inspired young people to enter this field. We also had to develop new sales channels that included expanding business overseas,” says project leader Norihiro Endo, managing director of Endo Tadashi Shouten.

“A relationship of trust” creates attractive products

The project’s core members manage four companies that have been selling Aizu Lacquer ware for generations. All the members have worked in Tokyo in other industries before returning home. Moreover, they all boast deep expertise, each with unique backgrounds. For example, Endo is a professional musician, and, of the three members, one worked at JAXA, or the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; the second was a banker; and the third was a management consultant.

Toshiyuki Onuma, a former banker. “To conduct overseas trade, we need advisors with extensive experience. Japan’s traditional arts and crafts are reputed highly in other countries, especially in France. So it is important not to miss out on business opportunities.”

“I think that I was able to objectively understand the status of the production area since I have gone out and worked in other business sectors. We are a team of unique individuals. However, we all agreed that business would slowly decline if we continued to do the same thing as in the past, and, to recover our industry, we had to take up new challenges,” says Toshiyuki Onuma, director of Onuma Lacquer Ware Co., Ltd.

A spirit of adventure and an eye to objectively read the trends of the times The members also shared a passion to contribute to their hometown and protect Aizu lacquer ware.

Osamu Matsumoto, a former management consultant. “With Aizu lacquer ware, the production site itself is like one large family. Operations are done under a division of labor arrangement. Since the neighbors are in this together, they cannot do careless work. This relationship of trust is raising the quality of the products.”

“Ever since I was small, I have watched craftsmen who worked to create products by trusting each other’s work. However, my father passed away immediately after the bubble burst. When I took part in a meeting where the local craftsmen got together, I found that two-thirds of the people had passed away, with no successors to carry on their work. I myself couldn’t decide right away, but I wanted to make ours a production site that was filled with energy and activity, just as in the past,” says Osamu Matsumoto, CEO of Matsumoto Kougei Co., Ltd.

Things did not necessarily go smoothly from the start, though. What prompted the members to launch a project was the design development work that they have been engaged in since 2003. The initial plan was to develop products and sell them in one year. Production of trial pieces took a long time, requiring two years until they were completed. These turned out to be the prototype for BITOWA. But then, problems about sales channels and pricing arose.

“The concepts and designs were rated favorably. Since we used new coatings and shape, however, it took extra time and energy to produce them, so the price inevitably rose. One bowl cost between 40,000 and 50,000 yen. With this price, the products could not compete in the market, so we could not go and release them,” says Endo.

But if they left things buried like this, it would never lead to the future. So the members looked for ways to solve the problem, and, in 2005, they applied for subsidies granted under the Japan Brand Development Assistance Program, implemented by the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency. The application was approved, and since then, their manufacturing business progressed dramatically.

Creating products that match current aesthetic sensibilities and lifestyles

The name BITOWA expresses both the question, “What is bi, or beauty?” as well as the concept of “bi to wa, or Beauty and Harmony.” The appeal of BITOWA’s products, as the name implies, is their design that reflects contemporary, razor-sharp aesthetic sensibilities while making use of Aizu lacquer ware’s superb techniques.

To give shape to the project’s ideas and will, the members went ahead with uncompromising designer selection and emphasizing “relationships of trust.”

Masakuni Seki, formerly a researcher at JAXA, currently manages b-Prese, a lifestyle shop selling rigorously selected, high-quality household tools and articles. Because outstanding overseas products were doing successfully with direct sales, “We felt that, by developing sales channels suited to BITOWA by ourselves, we could carry out manufacturing that is true to the end users,” he says.

“We were looking for designers who sympathized with our thoughts and ideas and were willing to work with us to create products, rather than someone who was already well-known. We did not necessarily have connections, so we checked the Internet and magazines, picked up designers who attracted our attention, set up over ten indicators such as experience of having produced lacquer ware, and the ability to understand the sense of the time needed to produce traditional arts and crafts that required time and effort, and studied each of these designers to see if they matched the requirements. We finally narrowed down the candidates to three people, and the four of us went to meet them and did an interview,” says Masakuni Seki, Representative Director of b-Prize Corporation.

This was how designer Kanae Tsukamoto was selected. The members wanted to incorporate women’s sensibilities and points of view since most Aizu lacquer ware craftsmen were men. In addition, the fact that she was doing activities overseas, and, more than anything, the fact that she described her wish to “visit the production site as much as possible and create works while listening to what the craftsmen have to say” became the deciding factor.

 

Proposing high-quality living, similar to staying at a hotel <BITOWA> A series of products that employ Aizu lacquer ware’s characteristic hana-nuri technique, and feature the brand logo yatsu-fuji-kuzushi (eight flowing wisteria blossoms), applied luxuriously in gold, using the taka-makie technique.

 

The appeals of BITOWA Modern are its elegant design and casualness. Turquoise, magenta, and yellow—colors that break the conventional image of Aizu lacquer ware—are used. However, the inside is coated in transparent paint to show the natural wood-grain to enhance the feel of the materials.

The experience at BITOWA stimulating each member

BITOWA made its debut at the Maison et Objet 2006 International Trade Fair held in Paris. The year before, two members, Seki and Onuma, and designer Kanae Tsukamoto, traveled to Paris and aggressively gave presentations to the organizers and the people concerned with Maison et Objet.

These passionate efforts bore fruit, and BITOWA succeeded in getting hold of a space inside the venue that was liable to draw attention. Buyers of Paris and various European countries were extremely surprised with BITOWA’s novel and magnificent lacquered interior products, and the brand was able to make a dramatic debut.

On the other hand, the members said that they were made painfully aware of the difficulty in selling their products overseas.

“Although we received numerous business negotiation opportunities, we did not yet have a setup in place to directly sell small quantities to other countries. So, for the initial year, we completely missed our chance to do business. It took us about three years to be able to do business smoothly. We’re still troubled by fluctuations in exchange rates, though. The understanding that our products can sell overseas gave us great confidence. And, more than anything, we were able to deepen our relationship of trust with ambitious craftsmen who agreed to go along with our project. This was a tremendous boost,” says Endo.

Using BITOWA as the trigger, projects are under way to develop, with a new perspective, products aimed at the domestic market. One of b-Prize Corporation’s popular products is a portable lacquered mug, called Nodate Mug, made entirely by hand by Aizu lacquer craftsmen. At Endo Tadashi Shouten, a woodworker and a lacquerer who handle BITOWA products developed a stylish wooden cup, called Seme, which means “seed” in Italian. The companies will continue to pursue the possibilities of tradition and beauty with a range of new products.

 

A light and sturdy genuine lacquer container, Nodate Mug, manufactured by b-Prize Corporation. Lacquer ware made of solid wood which is gentle to the hand, does not feel hot when held by hand, and does not stick to the skin and mouth even under subzero temperatures. The leather strings can be replaced to suit one’s taste.

 

At Endo Tadashi Shouten, a woodworker and a lacquerer who handle BITOWA products developed a stylish wooden cup, called Seme.

Craftsmen who support BITOWA

Production of Aizu lacquer ware consists of four major processes: creating a wooden lacquer base, undercoating, coating, and adding decorations. We visited three craftsmen involved with BITOWA, and watched them at work.

Marumono-kijishi who creates round lacquer ware containers
Mr. Katsusuke Arai, Maruyu Seisakujo

 

Marumono-kijishi is a craftsman who uses a turning lathe to create the wooden base for round-shaped lacquer ware such as bowls, trays and tea canisters by utilizing a handmade planer. The materials used as the wooden base include horse chestnut, Japanese zelkova, and castor aralia. Wood-base materials used for bowls, trays, and tea canisters, and the like, are manufactured, using different techniques such as vertical sawing and horizontal sawing, depending on the product and usage. The craftsman’s skill of creating the pieces evenly and perfectly matching the grains of the cover and the cylinder while shaving at high speed is truly amazing.
“Wood expands when heat is applied, so we try to finish the product while removing the deviations. To remove distortions, we smoke the square logs inside a drying site for about one month. By smoking, we can prevent bugs and insects, too.” (Mr. Arai)

Marumono-nurishi applies lacquer for round containers
Mr. Tohru Yoshida of Yoshida Urushi Kobo

 

Mr. Yoshida is a craftsman who is in charge of all the processes from undercoating to coating. Once a coating and decorations are applied, the undercoating can no longer be seen. But whether or not a lacquer ware lasts depends on this undercoating. The lacquer is filtered to remove fine dusts and particles. It is kneaded over and over again with a spatula, and rubbed into a wooden base. If lacquer gets on the skin, rashes may develop, so due caution is vital. And, surprisingly, the brush used for coating after this is made of human hair! “It’s resilient, and is easy to control, you see. I was worried because only two people in Japan were able to make this brush. But, to my great relief, they recently hired two young apprentices. I make all the other tools myself. Making tools is also part of a craftsman’s skills,” says Mr. Yoshida.
By carefully repeating the processes from undercoating to middle coating and top coating, the lacquer begins to take on a silky smooth gloss. Hana-nuri, which is one of the unique appeals of Aizu lacquer ware, is a technique of applying, as a topcoat in the finishing process, lacquer containing special oil to create sheen. This is a high-level technique of coating without leaving any brush marks or unevenness, and creating a feeling of warmth.

Makie-shi (a craftsman of makie, or a technique of sprinkling gold or silver powder over lacquer)
Makoto Honda of Makie Kobo Honda

 

Kashoku means to apply decorations of pictures and patterns to an over-coated lacquer ware. Makie craftsmen glue gold, silver and other colored powder, using lacquer, or use colored lacquer to draw beautiful pictures on a lacquer base. At BITOWA, a silk screen’s hand-printed technique is used.
“Even with silk screens, our makie craftsmen draw the base pictures with which to make molds. The finish design looks as if it was hand-painted. Makie consists of numerous precise operations requiring concentration. Gold leaves may fly away even with the slightest wind, so the craftsmen stay inside a room with all the windows shut tightly, and continue to draw pictures in silence. Lacquer does not dry up unless there is humidity. So we place it inside a wooden box, which we call a ‘lacquer bath,’ and steam it to dry. We say things like, ‘The lacquer is having a bath now’ (laughs),” says Mr. Honda.Since drying takes time, and because only one process can be performed per day, the craftsmen work on multiple products in parallel. “Yes, it takes time and effort. But if we didn’t use the traditional method, the color would end up sinking. Each process carries a meaning.”

Endo Tadashi Shouten Co., Ltd.
(Endo Tadashi Shouten Co., Ltd.)

Onuma Lacquer Ware Co., Ltd.
(Onuma Lacquer Ware Co., Ltd.)

b-Prize Corporation
(b-Prize Corporation)

Matsumoto Kougei Co., Ltd.
(Matsumoto Kougei Co., Ltd.)

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